Big state, smaller footprint

After more than a year of meetings, negotiations and revisions, California became the first state in the nation to incorporate green building standards into its building codes. Adopted on July 17, the new codes govern residential, commercial and public buildings. They will become mandatory in 2010, after a voluntary phase-in period.

The new green codes represent a victory for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has steadfastly opposed attempts to legislate green building or allow private entities to take over state authority in health and safety issues. Instead, Schwarzenegger issued an executive order that resulted in the development of the new statewide standards, which focus on water and energy savings, indoor air quality and the use of recycled and renewable building materials to reduce the carbon footprint of every new structure built in California.

The Lumber Association of California and Nevada (LACN) was one of several industry groups that participated in drafting the new codes. Builders, labor organizations and environmental groups also had their say. And not surprisingly, there was wrangling over whose certification standards would be accepted for lumber and wood products. The dispute, reflecting an industrywide debate over certified wood credentials, held up the approval process toward the very end.

“Not everybody got what they wanted,” said Rosario Marin, chair of the California Green Building Standards Commission. “But it is an important first step. We’ve achieved something no other state has been able to do.”

For new residential construction, the green codes require a 20 percent reduction in overall water use starting on July 1, 2011. The bar is set even higher for energy conservation: California homes must be 50 percent more energy efficient than national energy standards starting after July 2009.

Air quality and moisture control measures are addressed by low- or no-VOC paint, adhesives and coatings; air conditioning with high-efficiency filters; and improved air circulation through continuously running exhaust fans. Vinyl flooring, carpeting, insulation and ceiling and wall panels should be “low-emitting” to control indoor air pollutants. Carpeting, cement and concrete with recycled content are encouraged, along with salvaged wood. At least 50 percent of construction/demolition waste must be recycled or reused.

The code’s building materials section covers everything from framing techniques to “life cycle assessment,” which is the amount of energy consumed by a product during its lifetime. Lumber suppliers and distributors in California, concerned that the standards would lean in favor of steel or concrete, urged the commission to rely heavily on that assessment.

“Lumber requires only a fraction of the energy necessary to produce than steel and concrete products do,” wrote Rick Roberts, an LACN board member, in a letter to the commission. Wood can be more easily recycled or reused than concrete or steel, Roberts pointed out.

Lumberyard owners in the Golden State were equally concerned about a possible requirement for certified wood. Some municipalities have already followed the criteria set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, accepting only wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

“Less than 10 percent of the wood produced in California is FSC-certified,” Roberts told Home Channel News in an interview. “All other lumber grown in California is in compliance with strict forestry regulations.” Nevertheless, the LACN was in favor of a certified wood requirement “because it’s a good way for consumers to feel confident that the building materials they purchased were produced responsibly,” Roberts said. He added, “We supported certification, as long as all credible third party systems were included.”

Section 705.2.1 of the green building codes did require certified wood products—50 percent or more of any major building component (framing, flooring or millwork). And it listed five certification agencies: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the Canadian Standards Association, the American Tree Farm System and the Canadian PEFC standards. But a later addendum to the codes removed that whole section and replaced it with: “Certified wood is an important component of green building strategies, and the commission will continue to develop a standard through the next code cycle.”

David Walls, the commission’s executive director, said there was “a big push at the very end by the environmental organizations” to adopt the Forest Stewardship Council as the sole standard for certified wood. When the commission chose, instead, to include other certification organizations, “they were very, very unhappy,” Walls added.

The controversy threatened to delay the passage of all the green building codes, which had to be adopted together. So the commission pulled the whole section on wood certification, with plans to tackle it the next time the codes are updated. An annual revision is scheduled for the green building codes after they take effect in 2010.

With the exception of schools and hospitals, California’s state building codes are enforced by city and county building inspectors. An estimated 75 jurisdictions have already passed their own set of green building standards. The Building Standards Commission said it wasn’t trying to usurp local efforts; the statewide code “sets a sensible floor that all new structures can meet,” the commission said, and should not present any legal hurdles for communities that have implemented their own green building mandates.

On the other side of the divide, environmental advocates have criticized the codes as being too weak to make much difference in reducing greenhouse gases or overall energy consumption. In response, the commission claims that California’s green building standards are stringent enough to match a LEED silver certification issued by the U.S. Green Building Council.

California does have a LEED mandate, issued by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2004, when he declared that that all new state buildings or major renovation projects work toward a LEED certification at the silver level. So far, 13 state government buildings have achieved this status, and an additional 200 buildings are pursuing certification through the U.S. Green Building Council.